Book bits

Three books about New York, a review of "Austenland" by Shannon Hale, reader recommendations.

Austenland, by Shannon Hale

In Austenland, young adult writer Shannon Hale makes her adult novel debut, a contribution to what may be a budding new genre: women too in love with imaginary men to settle down with a real one.

Thirty-two-year-old Jane Hayes started out as a painter and a romantic. When we meet her, she's a graphic designer and a "spinster," inconsolably disillusioned by men. Except for Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Darcy has a few strikes against him: Stuck in Jane Austen's subtle send up of Regency England, he is decidedly unmodern – and, more to the point, unreal. But neither is really a serious drawback for Jane, because Darcy's got something no other hero of the English literary canon has: Colin Firth.

Firth, as swooning women of a certain age know all too well, played Darcy in the BBC's 1995 production of "Pride and Prejudice." Like chick-lit heroine Bridget Jones, Jane can't get enough of Firth-as-Darcy. She loves those tight breeches, that streak of pride, that long, lusty stare he gives Elizabeth across the drawing room.

Jane loves these Darcyisms so much that she can't be bothered with other men. Her past is littered with ex-boyfriends (if single dates count as boyfriends) who don't live up to the Darcy dream. Calling for an intervention, a rich aunt sponsors a trip to Austenland.

The live-in Regency theme park is, unfortunately, where most of the book takes place. Jane joins two women who stitch samplers during the day, play the card game whist at night, and wait to be wooed by actors (Austen-obsession appears to be a female problem; Hale never admits the possibility that men might pay as much to walk around in those breeches as women do to wander in corsets).

Unfortunately, neither does Hale ever quite convince the reader that Jane is in need of, well, rehab, and the already shaky conceit falls flat. Jane doesn't help matters much: just when we think we can take it all seriously, she bristles angrily at the artifice of it all. It doesn't take long to wish she'd just go home already.

The book feels like an excuse for Hale to try her hand at writing an Austen story. And it mimes one well: the rude, aloof love interest, so obviously a Darcy character to everyone except Jane, who is oddly oblivious for one so studied up; the bubbly, meddlesome aunt; the obligatory ball at the end. But without Austen's trademark dialogue, careful prose, and wry wit, the Regency era turns out to be as boring as we found it to be in high school.

– Jina Moore

Three books about New York

On the night of May 10, 1849 – in one of the most improbable episodes in American history – 10,000 New Yorkers brawled with the National Guard, which fired into the crowd, leaving more than 30 people dead in the streets of Manhattan. The cause? A heated rivalry between two Shakespearean actors, one English and one American. Former London Times theater critic Nigel Cliff does an excellent job of telling the strange but true story in The Shakespeare Riots.

Set during the War of 1812, City of Glory is the swashbuckling sequel to "City of Dreams," Beverly Swerling's earlier novel also set in early 19th-century New York. Characters include a wounded war hero, a jeweler's daughter, an unscrupulous trader, and John Jacob Astor himself. But perhaps the most fascinating character of all is the teeming young city, which Swerling renders in lively detail.

It was 1866 when a group of wealthy New Yorkers dining together in Paris decided their city needed a great museum of its own. In Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, journalist Danny Danziger offers more than 50 interviews with some of the insiders who, over the years, have made this great institution tick.

– Marjorie Kehe

New Asian Literary Prize

A prize intended to recognize the best in new Asian literature will be awarded for the first time in November, 2007. The Man Asian Literary Prize, sponsored by the Man Group, the same company that sponsors Britain's prestigious Booker prize, will include an award of $10,000 to the winner.

Eligible are Asian novels not yet published in English. This year, more than 240 submissions were received, and last week a long list of 23 nominees was released, including:

– Sanjy Bahadur, "The Sound of Water"

– Jose Dalisay Jr., "Soledad's Sister"

– Jiang Rong, "Wolf Totem"

– Hitomi Kanehara, "Autofiction"

In October, a short list of five candidates will be announced.

– M.K.

Readers' picks

I just recently finished Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder by Kent Nerburn. It is a powerful book about Indian culture and how two different views of the land (European and Indian) have left much sadness and, for Indians, much devastation.
Elizabeth Meylor, Minneapolis

Karen Armstrong's History of God reassures us in our seeking by introducing a multitude of fellow seekers and their sometimes resonant thoughts.
Jay Lyle, Decatur, Ga.

Check Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as well as Lisa See's other books. They are all excellent portrayals of China's historic past and contemporary culture. I read "Snow Flower" while on a three-week trip through China. See has a great sense for cultural interpretation both from an insider/outsider point of view!
Kate Daly, St. Paul, Minn.

Just read Patti Smith's weird, strange, sometimes baffling but ultimately satisfying collection of poems, prose, and auguries (omens and portents), Auguries of Innocence. She says she is an "unfashionably reconstructed '60s radical." That and the music of poetry are not bad things to have around during these troubled times.
Barry Wightman, Elm Grove, Wisc.

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard is truly a page turner. It chronicles the journey of Teddy Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and others, who succeeded (and some who did not) in navigating this treacherous river in Brazil. Though perhaps not for the squeamish, this is a harrowing tale told in exciting prose.
Mary Folsom, Kennebunk, Maine

I am reading Country of Origin by Don Lee. Set in Japan, it is brisk, entertaining, fast moving and a delight to read.
Ginny Gates, Santa Monica, Calif.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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